‘One colleague recalled a conversation Johnson had with Geoffery Cox, the attorney general, during the 2019 Brexit wars in Parliament. The lawyer said to him at one stage “Prime Minister, you just can’t do that”. Johnson replied, ‘Geoffrey, all my life people have been telling me “you can’t do that” – and I’ve always proven them wrong’
The problem with ‘always’ – well, one of the many problems with ‘always’ – is the hostage-to-fortune inherent in its presumptuousness. Something has thus far been, and therefore will continue to be.
But events have a horrible habit of breaking the spell, rendering clear the irresistible fallacy of always. They dispassionately dispel the unnatural promise of eternity in a world where nothing lasts forever. Things are always the case, until they aren’t. And a week is a long time in politics.
In Boris Johnson’s response to Geoffery Cox we are presented with the single word that contains everything we need to know about why his premiership collapsed in such spectacular fashion, and why it was always destined to do so.
The Fall of Boris Johnson, the second book in as many years from author Sebastian Payne, Whitehall Editor at the Financial Times, leaves the reader in no doubt that the fall of Boris Johnson, and its particularly chaotic and unedifying nature, was written in the stars.
It might not have necessarily come in the exact tragi-comic omnibus fashion that transpired, a year long saga bookended by the Chesham and Amersham by-election of June 2021 and the Chris Pincher scandal that proved the final straw in July 2022. But the much-vaunted ability of Johnson, the titanic political figure of the 2010s, to weather any storm was destined to be proven equally mythical as that of the unsinkable ship.
The man who had built a career defying political gravity – the man who won London twice and delivered the referendum for Vote Leave – in the end, fell victim to another of nature’s actual constants, the second law of thermodynamics – everything trends towards entropy. Johnson’s characteristic belief in his own destined singularity was to prove this classical scholar’s tragic hamartia.
The Fall of Boris Johnson is full of intriguing fly-on-the-wall vignettes like that of Cox-Johnson conflab, in which Payne makes us briefly feel like we too are special, bestowing upon us the ability to stroll the draughty corridors of power, earwigging on conversations that will be variously recounted in columns and chronicles to come.
Pacy, thrilling, and with its protagonist always front-and-centre of the narrative, were it a work of fiction the book would surely be written off as simply too unbelievable. The uncomfortable reality of the events described by Payne serves as a useful reminder of the very real sense at the time that, as the ‘greased piglet’ survived scandal after scandal, perhaps Johnson really was unsinkable.
As the first draft of history, the book clearly has an element of score-settling and blame deflection from those who provide their accounts, reflections and comments on the events of which they were a part. But Payne, whilst initially coming across as overly kind to Johnson, allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the explanations, speculations and conflicting accounts offered by these unreliable witnesses.
An ensemble cast of supporting characters pull the story along and add some flavour to the series of unfortunate events. The standout of the group of what one could uncharitably call Johnson’s ill-advisors has to be Guto Harri, drafted in during the rising action as Johnson’s new Director of Communications. Harri is best described as a latter-day Welsh Rasputin, but less hairy and even more hare-brained than the mysterious man from Siberia.
Reading the book, the only rational explanation for the succession of disastrous decisions for which Harris was responsible is that he must have been employed as a double agent, parachuted in to hasten the demise of the PM. But even when considering the best efforts of Johnson’s motley crew of weirdos and misfits, the overwhelming take-away from Payne’s excellent book is Boris Johnson’s indisputable responsibility for his own demise.
Johnson has long cultivated an image of himself as the new Churchill – the saviour of the Nation and one of the ‘great men’ of history. In the end, on the steps of Downing Street, he settled for the Roman statesman Cincinnatus – the reluctant leader humbly submitting to his plough. His defenders – grieving the loss of their chief – focus on his legions of incompetent advisors, inadvertently drawing comparisons with the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred the Unready. His detractors cast him as a different Roman figure, the infamous emperor Nero.
But in truth, the historical figure that the Boris Johnson of Payne’s book depicts most closely is Oliver Cromwell. The unshakeable conservative radical whose belief in his own providential nature left no room for self-doubt, compromise or accountability. Like Cromwell, Johnson led a counter-insurgency that has reshaped our politics, he inspired a formidable level of devotion amongst his followers, and most similarly, harboured a self-assurance verging on delusion.
When explaining his motivations for ditching his lucrative journalistic career and entering the world of politics, Johnson said it was because ‘they don’t put up statues of journalists’. 364 years after his own death, Oliver Cromwell’s statue sits steely and aloof on the green named after him on the western edge of the parliamentary estate.
Despite his central role in the last decade of British politics, and to his lasting chagrin, Johnson – the boy who wanted to be world king – will never achieve the lasting notoriety of the Member of Parliament for Cambridge who, whilst not quite managing the title of world king, became the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Whilst all Prime Ministers are concerned with their ‘legacy’, Johnson is perhaps the most legacy-focused PM of modern times – no doubt a consequence of his famed historical education. From the long-running refrain that he ‘got all the big calls right’, to his obsession with tangible legacy projects such as HS2, the garden bridge, or the Northern Ireland tunnel, Johnson has long displayed a need to leave a lasting impression. Whether he will manage to go down in the history books is not the business of Payne’s book, nor this review. Only time will tell.
The Fall of Boris Johnson does more than just recount the what, when, where, who and how of his downfall. Fundamentally, it is an exploration of the why. A fascinating character study in privilege, hubris, entitlement, spite, desperation, delusion and shamelessness.
The book reads like a greek tragedy, the unstoppable momentum of events is briefly distracted from by moments of comic relief provided by amongst others – Lord Geidt’s resignation over steel tariffs and that final appearance at the Liaison Committee – but the denouement and anagnorisis are always there, waiting in the wings, simply a matter of time.
The man who since his childhood believed himself to be above the rules, who built a career bending them and breaking them, in the end proved just as bound by the fundamentals as the rest of us.
Boris Johnson is living proof that you can defy political gravity. He’s also living proof that, like matter delicately suspended on the edge of the event horizon of a black hole, you cannot outrun it forever. Nature always finds a way. All political careers end in failure. That is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
Jay Jackson is a political commentator, and campaigner for the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. Previously, he studied Politics (BA) and Modern History (MA) at the University of Sheffield, and was the Head of Public Affairs at drug policy think tank Volteface. You can follow him on twitter: @wordsbyjayj
The Fall of Boris Johnson is the explosive inside account of how a prime minister lost his hold on power by Sebastian Payne